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Don’t expect a ‘Minnesota Miracle’ from the Wolves this playoff series

After 85 games, it is time to stop regarding moments of sunlight from a chronically inconsistent team as evidence of viable breakthroughs.

Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards stripping the ball from Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the second quarter during game one of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Ball Arena on Sunday.
Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards stripping the ball from Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the second quarter during game one of the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Ball Arena on Sunday.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday night in Denver was not the first time the Minnesota Timberwolves have been in a shambles this checkered 2022-23 NBA season. But their steadfast inability to sustain focus, generate teamwork or evince any joy for the competitive splendor of playoff basketball during this 109-80 shellacking by the Nuggets was an especially searing reminder that they regularly register performances that are not even equal to the sum of their parts – or that various parts are in stages of physical and/or attitudinal decay.

The Wolves finished their three-game regular season-ending/play-in pressure cooker on Friday night then flew to the higher altitude and lower oxygen that is the Nuggets abiding abode for a game 48 hours later. The Wolves roster had been recently thinned by a broken wrist for Naz Reid and a broken hand for Jaden McDaniels. Rudy Gobert is battling back spasms. Anthony Edwards claims he’s physically fine but plays otherwise. The team’s depleted depth steepens the drop in quality from players off the bench. By contrast, the Nuggets came into the series with every member of its regular nine-player rotation ready to go.

The prelude

There was talk that Nuggets/Wolves would not be your typical top-seed-versus-eighth-seed cakewalk in the first round of the playoffs. The Western Conference was surprisingly bereft of dominant teams this season. You have to go way back to the 1978-79 NBA season to find the top team in the West with a lower winning percentage than Denver’s .646 on a mark of 53 wins and 29 losses. That was balanced by an exceptionally deep lower-middle class in the conference; teams like the Wolves and the two play-in foes they had to battle to snatch the lowest rung on the playoff ladder.

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After the shootaround practice the morning of Game 1 versus the Nuggets, the Wolves players seemed loose and confident. They had split the four regular season games with the Nuggets, and none them involved the then-injured Karl-Anthony Towns or veteran point guard Mike Conley, acquired at the February trade deadline.

“They haven’t seen our team together since the trade,” Towns said. “It works in our benefit that they have been sitting home since Saturday and haven’t had any tapes to rely on to understand how we play or how they play us. We’re a totally different team than the last time we played them; our personality our gameplan. That is very fortunate for us and hopefully that fortune works in our favor.”

But KAT wasn’t finished. Citing the thumping of Oklahoma City in the final play-in game to secure the eighth seed, he said, “When everything was on the line, we played our best game (of the season). So we should feel good walking into tonight with our confidence high, understanding that if we play the way we did against OKC, there are not many teams that can beat us on a nightly basis, especially in a seven-game series.”

In his pregame presser on Sunday, head coach Chris Finch was typically more blunt and realistic. “It could go one of two ways. We have played in a lot of ‘must-win’ games in the last several weeks, culminating in Friday’s ‘win or go home’ game. Hopefully there is not the emotional letdown that says if we don’t play well today, we’ll still (be able to) go tomorrow. But, having said that, we’re pretty battle-ready and I feel good about that.”

When asked about what the team learned from last year’s playoff series – an entertaining but ultimately disappointing six-game series against Memphis in which the Wolves blew big leads in three of their four losses – Finch replied, “I think these series are won by the team that stays on the most-even keel. Last year’s playoff series was emotionally probably a little too up and down, on and off the floor, for us.

“We need to have a more level-headed approach. Given the season we’ve had, we feel like we’ve earned our way here. But we’re also sitting here still trying to figure things out. We’re going to play loose, we’re going to play free, we’re going to have a lot of fun … We know we’re playing a championship caliber team. It is going to be a fun series to go at with them.”

The dominant quote from the pregame presser of Nuggets coach Mike Malone occurred when a Denver beat writer asked him in what ways he was hoping the “levels of focus” he had earlier referred to, would be there. “As far as the intensity, I mean, if we are not ready to play in Game 1 of the playoffs, we shouldn’t be here.”

Game 1

The Nuggets jumped out to an 8-0 lead that was quickly cut to 8-5 by Ant’s step-back three-pointer and a drive through three opponents for a layup, both unassisted. The Wolves were down six, 16-10, when Finch made his first substitution, bringing in Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson for Gobert. A minute later, the Wolves began to cook.

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Ant drove left and kicked it back out to Conley, who threaded his way into a teardrop floater. Ant again found Conley via a simple perimeter pass that Conley sidestepped into a made trey. Then Conley and Slo Mo went to work. They ran the exact same play – a back-and-forth pick-and-roll culminating in Conley hitting Anderson with a pocket pass for a floater from a dozen feet out – sandwiched around a Denver bucket. Malone called timeout with the Wolves up 19-18 and a little more than four minutes to play in the first period.

Minnesota would hang around a little longer – posting another lead with their last basket of the first quarter – but the final 37 minutes of this game was a decisive display of Denver superiority.

The Nuggets owned the second quarter by eight, posting a 55-44 halftime lead. The Wolves “big 3” were underwhelming, both together and apart. KAT had four points, four rebounds and one assist in 16:45 minutes of play. The Wolves were outscored by 12 points in the 15:48 Gobert was on the court, and plus one in the 8:12 Gobert sat out. When Gobert and KAT were side-by-side, the team was minus eight in 8:33. Ant led the team in points (14) and assists (three), but was an unfocused sieve on defense – the Wolves surrendered more points per possession with him on the court than any other player in the half.

The surrounding cast was of little assistance. Nickeil Alexander-Walker (NAW) was a stalwart on-ball defender but the offense languished with him on the court. Jaylen Nowell was the opposite – the abacus tilted to offense from both teams during his brief stint. Aside from their pick-and-roll spirt, Conley and Slo Mo were not effective.

Most poignantly, backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin extended a brutal slump, which is deep enough to threaten his future tenure with the team. Asked before the game what J-Mac needed to do to break the nosedive, Finch advised making the simple play. Instead, the pint-sized catalyst whose high-paced kineticism had been a Wolves elixir for dozens of games stretching back into last season, continued his bewildering new penchant for challenging bigs off the dribble as they nonchalantly ate his lunch.

All that said, the worst was yet to come. The Wolves embarrassed themselves and essentially ended the competition in the first three minutes and 21 seconds of the third quarter. Towns clanked a 25-footer, then committed two straight turnovers foolishly attempting to feed Gobert in the paint off dribble-penetration. Then Conley and Gobert attempted an alley-oop so ill-timed it looked a comedy routine. Straight out of a Finch timeout, Ant threw a bounce pass that short-hopped below KAT’s knees.

The Nuggets gleefully transformed these turnovers into points. The 9-1 run was climaxed by Ant fouling Michael Porter, Jr. as he was making a three-point shot. Finch’s challenge of the foul call was whistling past the graveyard: It stood as Ant’s fourth personal, sending him to the bench with his team suddenly down by 19 points. He did not make a basket (aside from four free throws) in the entire second half.

Key bench cog Taurean Prince went scoreless in 21:17 minutes. KAT had 11 points, Gobert 8, the Wolves as a team 80, their lowest output all season by an eight-point margin. The 29-point margin of defeat was their second-largest of the season, exceeded only by a 33-point erasure back on Feb. 7 by these same Nuggets. Apparently the additions of KAT and Conley didn’t phase them.

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All season long, this has been a referendum on the blockbuster acquisition of Gobert back in July. Through a myriad of injuries and personality changes, there have been fleeting moments of chemistry that have flickered and fizzled like aged matchheads.

Yes, the final statistics are dinged by the copious substitutions that come with garbage time. But in this first taste of the playoffs – the time of the season when the proverbial rubber meets the road – the Wolves wishfully-vaunted double bigs contingent was a resounding failure. Their wannabe bully-ball was upended: It was Denver who imposed their will on this game.

In his postgame presser, Malone raved about his team’s “stellar defensive performance.” He cited Denver’s 16-3 dominance in points off transition, and whopping 54-38 rebounding advantage as signs of their physicality and discipline.

The Nuggets are not an especially quick nor athletic team. But it is common sense to try and get out and run against two lumbering seven-footers. That also prevents the Wolves from invoking the fly-around defensive spirit that is the most pleasing and, when given momentum, meaningful virtues of this ballclub. “We don’t want to play in a half-court game. Minnesota is used to scoring 20 points a night off turnovers,” Malone said postgame.

Actually, it is 18 points a night, seventh best in the NBA. In Game 1, they got 12. They were also seventh in most points in the paint during the regular season, with 54.3 per game. In Game 1, they got 36, mostly because they managed only 14 shots in the restricted area of the paint, well below the average of what they produced and Denver allowed in the regular season.

“Way more physical than we were,” Finch succinctly summed up very early in his postgame presser. “They played with more speed, more force, they kicked our butt in every category that you can possibly imagine.”

Even the most casual fan can tell which team is getting to loose balls, positioning themselves for more rebounds, rotating defensive coverages with gusto, and engaging themselves mentally in the game in a manner that recognizes and seizes opportunities. For the fans of the Wolves, that absence of commitment is exasperating.

But for those wanting to get inside the game, these Timberwolves compound their misfortune with aimless basketball. It is damning that Finch has to accurately state, after 82 regular season games and two play-in games, that “we’re sitting here still trying to figure things out.”

Gobert is in his 10th season. KAT is in his eighth. Slo Mo is in his ninth. Conley is in his 16th.

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To break down into detail exactly what aimless, or “still figuring it out,” means, it is worth it to include this lengthy postgame quote from Conley (hat tip to podcaster Dane Moore), when asked why the Wolves offensive rhythm is so difficult to sustain.

“Every game it is a different thing. Sometimes it’s trying to get, with our two bigs, trying to get spacing correct. Trying to get one of our bigs in the post and one up top, and sometimes both go down at the same time and that can jumble up our spacing. And when opportunities are there for us to do a swing into the corner, we might not have a guy there because KAT is thinking post-up at that time, or Rudy is thinking roll, the guy with the ball is thinking iso. Whatever it is, we’ve just got to be more connected on that part and understand that we’ve got to use that spacing to create easy opportunities for us. Because when the spacing is bad, we’re slow, the ball sticks, and we have games like we had tonight.”

During the 2022-23 season, the Wolves have had at least a half-dozen identities that were three-quarters formed before an injury happened, a trade was swung, or some other disruptive dynamic intruded. Which is another way of saying that the Wolves have never been able to land on a reliable identity.

As Conley so perceptively laid out, they have been, literally, a season-long team of misfits.

It is entirely possible that the Wolves will rise up and improbably capture Game 2 of this series on Wednesday night. They have made anyone covering this team – yours truly especially included – look like fools. For a few games, they can play so well that you enthusiastically think that they are belatedly figuring it out. And then for a few games they play like trash, and compel you to call it out, only to watch another dab of competence.

No matter. After 85 games, it is time to stop regarding moments of sunlight from a chronically inconsistent team as evidence of viable breakthroughs. Game 2 may produce an inspiring win to savor, or it may unfurl another dreadful pratfall.

But four wins in the next six games is not happening.